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Could Western Australia Have Oz' Finest Shiraz?
By Ed McCarthy
Nov 13, 2007
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The exceptional Rieslings of Western Australia were my topic for last month's column.  They deserved a column of their own.  But I tasted many other fine wines during my travels last month through this remote region.  Western Australia has been most renowned in the wine world for its Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays.  While it's true that I did find a few notable Cabernets and a couple of extraordinary Chardonnays, the biggest surprise for me was the Syrahs of Western Australia -- especially those made in the cooler region in the south -- the area known as the Great Southern.

I'm not usually a big Syrah fan.  I'm more of a Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo guy. Oh, sure, I love a great Côte Rôtie or Hermitage, but who doesn't?  But the Syrahs (Shirazes) of Australia and California generally have never moved me -- although I have tasted a few good ones from Washington State. And the cool San Antonio Valley on the coast of Chile is also making promising Syrah.

Climate seems to be a major determining factor. Several years ago, I had a conversation about Syrah with Randy Ullom, wine director of Kendall-Jackson, and he told me, 'Syrah does best on the warm edge of a cool region.'  This theory of Ullom's was reaffirmed for me at a tasting I just attended of Shannon Ridge wines from Lake County, California.  Clay Shannon is growing his Syrah on a mountain 2400 feet above Clear Lake in an AVA called High Valley -- 'the warm edge of a cool region.'  His 2006 Syrah had great intensity of fruit combined with bracing acidity.  I rated it a '92,' quite good for a $19 California Syrah.

A major difference between Western Australia -- especially the southern part -- and other Aussie wine regions where Syrah is made is the temperature.  Most Australian wine regions get quite hot in the summer; the Barossa Valley, where much elite Shiraz is made, is a prime example.  While Cabernet Sauvignon can perform admirably on the Napa Valley floor, South Australia, and many other relatively warm regions, Syrah, or at least the Syrah that I enjoy, seems to do best in cooler regions. The Frankland River sub-region in the Great Southern, for example, is a particularly fine growing region for Syrah.

Other wines?  The best-selling white wine throughout Western Australia is not Chardonnay nor Riesling, but Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc -- or sometimes Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon, depending on which variety predominates in the blend.  This wine is popular in Western Australia for three reasons: It really works well as a blend, with the viscosity of the Semillon complementing the aromatic fruit and acidity of the Sauvignon; it's easy-drinking, perfect for casual occasions; and the price is right, with most retailing in the $10 to $15 range.  Straight Sauvignon Blancs and Semillons are also made there, but the blended wines, known in Oz land as SSBs or SBSs, depending on the blend, are more commonly found.  Some Viognier is also made in Western Australia, but it's not a big success.

Besides Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, the red wine you see the most In Western Australia is Cabernet-Merlot, normally made as a medium-bodied, casual, inexpensive wine, the red version of the Semillon-Sauvignon Blancs.  Just about every winery makes at least one Cabernet-Merlot -- along with its SSBs and/or SBSs.  Generally, I did not find the Cabernet-Merlot wines to my taste (too light and insubstantial, whereas I did like the SSBs and the SBSs).  Some Merlot also exists, but it's not as successful as Cabernet Sauvignon.

And yes, Pinot Noir is also made in Western Australia.  You would think that the cool climate would be suitable for this variety, but I found very few Pinot Noirs that were exceptional. Apparently, it's a very difficult process importing new grape clones into Western Australia; the government is strict, with very long incubation periods for the clones (I heard 'four years'!).  And most growers are not satisfied with the Pinot Noir or Merlot clones that they now have.

My conclusions about the wines of Western Australia:
Great Rieslings, and some very good Syrahs -- my two favorite wines of Western Australia. For casual, inexpensive whites, I particularly enjoyed many Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc wines, plus less-expensive Rieslings.

Tasting Notes

Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River (Australia) Chardonnay, Art Series 2002  ($65, Old Bridge Cellars; Winebow Brands International): Leeuwin Estate has the reputation of making arguably the best Chardonnays in Australia.  I'm a believer. Its 2002 Art Series, which is still available in the U.S., is a classic Chardonnay: rich, complexly flavored, and powerful, with a long finish. One of the best Chardonnays I've tasted all year.  Leeuwin's 2005 Chardonnay Art Series, by the way, is almost as good.  95

Evans & Tate, Margaret River (Australia) Chardonnay, Stellar Ridge Vineyard 2005  ($50, Avanti Wines):  Evans & Tate specializes in Chardonnay, producing four: a standard, reserve, and two single-vineyard wines. Its '05 Stellar Ridge Vineyard and '05 Wildberry Springs Estate Chardonnays are indeed impressive. The '05 Stellar Ridge is rich and intensely concentrated, with its fresh apple fruit flavors balanced with crisp acidity.  Although it has 14.5% alcohol, it is so well-balanced and fresh, with a long finish, that it leaves a supple, understated impression on the palate.  92

Fonty's Pool, Pemberton (Australia) Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 2007  ($13, Opici Wine Co.):  Fonty's Pool was one of the most impressive wineries I visited, both for the overall quality of its wines and the natural beauty of its estate.  Pemberton is near the Indian Ocean, directly west of the Great Southern.   What a pleasure to drink this wine (63 percent Sauvignon, 37 percent Semillon) with its fresh, pure, delicate citrusy flavors and hints of snow peas, along with its bracing acidity! A great value as well; very good depth and concentration for a $13 wine.  90

Houghton Vineyards, Swan Valley (Australia) Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 2007  ($13, Centerra wine Co., Constellation Wines):  Houghton is one of the oldest and largest wineries in Western Australia, and now a part of Constellation Wines.  As a result, its wines have excellent distribution throughout the U.S.  Although Houghton's main winery is in the Swan Valley, north of Perth, it sources its fruit from all over Western Australia.  For example, this fresh, lively '07 SBS has grapes from Frankland (in the Great Southern), Pemberton, and Margaret River.  Easy-drinking; one of the largest-selling wines in the country.  89

Howard Park, Margaret River (Australia) Shiraz, Leston Vineyard 2003  ($23, Opici Wine Co.):  Howard Park produces this 100 percent Shiraz from Leston Vineyard, and its Scotsdale Shiraz from Mt. Barker (prime Riesling country) in the Great Southern.  The Leston is the better of the two, with good depth and concentration.  The '03 Leston is a beauty, with its earthy, spicy aromas and its firm, compact flavors, hinting of tart  black plums. Long, concentrated finish.  92

Mad Fish, Margaret River (Australia) Shiraz, 'Gold Turtle' 2005  ($19, Opici Wine Co.):  Howard Park's other winery, Mad Fish, makes a less-expensive line of wines, but its Gold Turtle wines are its best, really on the level of other fine wineries in Western Australia.  Mad Fish makes a pleasant Shiraz -- with grapes sourced from three regions -- for $14, but it's worth the extra $5 for its Gold Turtle Shiraz, with 100 percent Frankland River fruit, perhaps the finest region in Western Australia (all of OZ?) for Syrah.  The '05 Gold Turtle Shiraz has ripe, raspberry fruit aromas, real depth, and a lovely, velvety texture.  90

Plantagenet, Great Southern  (Australia) Shiraz, 'Mount Barker' 2001  ($27, Robert Whale Selections):  The Mount Barker sub-region has one of the coolest climates in all of Australia, and is producing extraordinary Rieslings and Shiraz wines.  Plantagenet, located in Mount Barker, was the first winery established in Great Southern.  The '01 Mount Barker Shiraz has great concentration  and firm tannins, with spicy, dry fruit flavors.  It is a fleshy wine, but is not overly fruity. As evidence of its aging ability, I tried an '88 Mount Barker Shiraz at the winery; it had surprising depth, and was drinking beautifully.  92

Vasse Felix, Margaret River (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon 2004  ($35, Negociants USA): The strikingly beautiful Vasse Felix Estate is producing some of Western Australia's best Cabernet Sauvignons.  The '04 Vase Felix Cab, with fruit sourced from Margaret River, Mount Barker and Frankland River vineyards, is a deep, rich wine, lean in style, with healthy acidity and tannins.  It has classic Cabernet aromas of cedar and lead pencil, with earthy fruit flavors.  91

Fonty's Pool, Pemberton (Australia) Pinot Noir 2005  ($17, Opici Wine Co.):  Fonty's Pool is one of the few Western Australia wineries producing good Pinot Noir, and at a very good price.  The '05 Pinot Noir has aromas and flavors of black fruits, with racy acidity and highish (14%) alcohol.  It has good depth and concentration,  with true, ripe Pinot Noir flavors.  Quite delicious!  90